If you like underlining pleasurable and provocative sentences with a pencil, plan on keeping a sharpener at the ready while reading Jay Shearer’s chapbook The Pulpit vs. The Hole. Gold Line Press understandably selected this story as the winner of their 2011 Chapbook Competition. This smallish booklet held me steadfast. The setting of a Brethren/Mennonite summer camp for adolescents is teeming ground for a fairly high order of microcosmic examination. Poetry pervades the prose and makes the prospect of underlining daunting, distracting and mildly disorienting. Also, I’m a sucker for parenthetical phrases set off with em dashes. By page two I became mopey about the brevity of the book. My desire thumming, I wondered, how can this book possibly give me all I need in such an austere package? Should I even get attached to these characters since our time together is destined to be short? What’s with these chapbooks anyway? Chapbooks are so concentrated that they make everything else seem like watery Kool-Aid. You will need to put down the pencil.
Shearer imbued The Pulpit vs. The Hole with a scattering of themes that scoot and zip around the book like pre-adolescents hotfooting it through the woods at Camp Abednego. Pacifism is a hard sell to the youth of this book. Shearer deals with pacifism through the precocious voice of his youthful narrator, Marty. The slow to grow understanding of the pitfalls of non-participation reminded me of what had seemed a deeply significant process. Marty and Jordan, another camper, struggle to understand the limitations and challenge the boundaries of the adults’ proclaimed pacifism. They seem to be pushing into view some form of active pacifism.
In dealing with pacifism, certain questions arise. The question of all questions, the question meant to discredit pacifism, the question that— asked or unasked— remains central to the demoralization and hindrance of complete alignment with the older forms of un-programmed Quakerism, the Brethren-ism, or the Mennonite-ism. We know the discomfort of the camp counselor as he listens to the disquieting question: “ ‘what would you do in World War Two?’ ” (p. 20). Of course the invocation of such a fundamental injustice comes from the endearingly irascible camper Jordan. Young people live in a constant state of hyperbole, and to invoke World War II is to force the adults to realize that this state of hyperbole, has at times, been a reality. So what, would you like “ ‘just let the Nazis kill all the Jews?’ ” (p. 20). Counselor Dan, answering for the entire population of pacifists — dare he say it? The answer he has to give? The answer that must, but can’t come with conviction, that “ ‘first, as with anyone, we’d try to talk to them’ ” (p. 21). Jordan scoffs quintessentially American indignation at this passive response offered up with only lukewarm sentiment on the floor of a camp cabin.
February 27th, 2013 / 12:00 pm